Let us put the big question on the table.
Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.” How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India?
In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.
On can start with the Enlightenment thinkers to understand the social conditions out of which the aspirations for equality emerged – we have done that in earlier posts. But the quickest summary of the second phase can be gained by looking at the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) who sought to persuade his fellow intellectuals to accept the legacy of the French Revolution warning them that it was impossible to turn the clock back.
De Tocqueville pointed out that the growing equality was inevitable and urged a focus on how liberty could be preserved in an egalitarian age (one of de Tocqueville’s major fears was that democracy would degenerate into despotism). Equality of course meant political equality by definition because every man would have an equal vote. But more than that, de Tocqueville kept referring to the growing “equality of condition” which was not the same thing as economic equality. It meant that men had started viewing each other as social equals and wished to be treated as such irrespective of the differences in their income levels. To translate that into our frame, there were no longer any institutions or places (including the kitchen table) to which an individual could be denied access because of his birth or level of income.
In an excellent primer (Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002), Bernard Crick distinguishes three dimensions of democracy: democracy as a principle or doctrine of government; democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices; and democracy as a type of behavior (say the antithesis of both deference and unsociability). And he points out that “they do not always go together.”
Crick elaborates the third dimension as follows: “democracy can be seen as a recipe for an acceptable set of institutions, or else as a ‘way of life’ in which the ‘spirit of democracy’ becomes at least as important as the peculiarity of the institutions. For some think that the hallmark of such a way of life lies, indeed, in the deed and not the word: people acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal” (pages 9-10).
Let us now come back to India. It satisfies Crick’s first two dimensions but not the third. And this is the peculiarity of Indian democracy. The historical sequence mentioned above has been reversed. Democracy with universal suffrage has arrived before a social revolution that removed a hierarchical aristocratic order. In fact, even the idea of equality itself is not fully grounded in the polity.
Thus almost all comments about Mayawati feel it necessary to include the reference to her being an “untouchable;” there are quite unselfconscious remarks about the voting behavior of the “lower orders;” and one comes across journal articles with titles like the following reflecting the reality of contemporary Indian life: ‘They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home.
Visionary leaders were quite well aware of these contradictions. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:
In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?
It takes a long time to change structures and it is very messy. What one is seeing in India today is unique in human history – democracy and the vote being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that will accomplish what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the western world. But, in doing so, will it degenerate into the despotism that de Tocqueville feared?
It is history turned on its head and a fascinating process to watch and be part of.
The journal article mentioned in the text is to appear in Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, eds., The Middle Classes in India: Identity, Citizenship and the Public Sphere.
The quote from Dr. Ambedkar is from Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, page 15.